Homer Alaska - News

Clutts, Haggerty speak at Chamber of Commerce debate

By Michael Armstrong

Homer News Staff Writer

Mako Haggerty, left, listens as Jesse Clutts, right, speaks at the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center debate last Wednesday at the Kachemak Community Center.

Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News

In the latest debate between municipal candidates, the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center on Wednesday held a meeting at the Kachemak Community Center between candidates for the District 9 seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. Anchor Point business owner Jesse Clutts is challenging incumbent Assembly member and water taxi owner Mako Haggerty for the position.

Although both Clutts and Haggerty both have business experience and solid roots in their communities, the debate brought out differences in their political philosophies, particularly on the issue of an anadromous stream protection ordinance. Haggerty supports the ordinance while Clutts called it an overreach of borough powers.

Clutts, owner of the Anchor River Inn and a longtime lower Kenai Peninsula Resident ran in a three-way race in 2009 against Haggerty and Tom Clark. In opening remarks, Clutts said he ran again after no one else stepped forth to challenge Haggerty. Voters should have a choice, he said.

Haggerty, a former commercial fisherman and owner of Mako's Water Taxi, said he knows Kachemak Bay communities well, particularly those on the south side of the bay.

"I bring a lot of that knowledge with me to the assembly," he said.

Moderated by KBBI AM 890 radio news director Aaron Selbig, the candidates were given six questions in advance. Each had three minutes to answer the question and a minute for a follow-up.

"The theory of these debates is not to put candidates on the spot, not to get quick answers, but policy answers on these questions," Selbig said.

The first question asked what could be done to mitigate sudden and unexpected tax hikes to property owners after receiving borough assessments.

Clutts said one issue is that on the 5-year assessment schedule, when the borough assessor visits properties and the assessment goes up, property owners sometimes get hit with drastic increases. They don't have the opportunity to plan for that, Clutts said.

"It's a problem that needs to be addressed," he said.

One idea would be for some system of credits for tax increases to be phased in over time, Clutts said.

Haggerty noted that with a 5-year schedule, "It's always a shock when you take a leap five years forward," he said. "I think something needs to be done to address that shock."

On the other hand, Haggerty said, the assessment schedule has another effect.

"You could look at it for the last four years you've been paying less on your property," he said. "The way I look at it, I've skated the last four years and it's bringing me up to speed."

The fair thing would be to have annual assessments, but that would mean hiring more assessors and cost the borough more.

Clutts said he didn't think he's been skating the past four years.

"I feel like I've paid my own assessed share," he said.

It was on the question of anadromous streams protection the two candidates most differed in their answers. The ordinance provides a 50-foot setback from stream edges in which some activities would allowable by permit.

Haggerty said he supported the ordinance and he thinks the borough has the powers in the areas that the ordinance covers.

"I believe it's the borough's duty to protect common property," he said, referring to rivers and streams. "I believe salmon adds to the quality of life here."

Clutts said he agreed with the goal of protecting fisheries.

"At the same time I feel the borough has overstepped its boundaries with this progression of taking more and more," he said. "It applies a blanket approach that should be addressed specifically. What works for the Kenai River should be applied to the Fox River."

The ordinance's conditional use process does look at streams on a case-by-case basis, Haggerty said.

"It's not like the ordinance completely eliminates any kind of development within that 50-foot area," he said. "It's still your property. I don't think it creates a hardship."

"It's an extra step you have to go through to do something on your property," Clutts said. "That goes against the private property rights we appreciate as Americans."

On another question, the candidates did show agreement on what could be done about the issue of bluff erosion at Mile 155.3 Sterling Highway. Both said that it's the state's responsibility to address that problem, but that the borough can and should keep pressure on the state. Haggerty said he didn't think erosion could be stopped and the state eventually will have to look at rerouting the highway and acquiring private property.

"However, if it does fall into the water, I will have my water taxi service," Haggerty said. "No, I think this is one issue we can agree on."

The candidates also showed some disagreement on how to encourage recycling to reduce the costs of trucking the lower peninsula's solid waste once the Homer Landfill becomes a waste transfer site.

"We've talked a lot about personal responsibility," Haggerty said. "I've played a game with myself about how much was I can reduce to a single bag. I recycle everything."

The borough could encourage more recycling by expanding recycling to more plastics and electronics, Haggerty said. The borough also could store some recyclables to take advantage of better market prices.

Clutts said if looking at recycling from a responsible citizen standpoint, recycling is a good thing to do. Recycling does cost the borough money, he added.

"We spend more on recycling than we get out of it," he said. "From a cost standpoint, it might not be worthwhile for the borough to get into recycling."

On a question of whether there should be a 1-percent tax on the visitor industry to support the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, Clutts and Haggerty both saw some problems with that.

"How do you define a visitor business?" Clutts asked. "I don't like where we separate groups. Everybody should be on a level playing field."

"A lot of bugs need to be worked out," Haggerty said. "(KPTMC) needs to get a greater amount of support from their own membership from this particular idea."

A more open ended question of how the borough can attract and keep working families and businesses brought some different answers.

"We need to support the industries we have," Haggerty said. "We need to encourage new industries."

Increased gas exploration will support the peninsula's existing petroleum industry, but it also will reduce the cost of energy, Haggerty said.

He noted how some programs have reduced opportunity for young people, such as the halibut individual fishing quota program. That benefited him, Haggerty said, but he's also seen fewer young people getting into the halibut fishery.

"The fishing industry is closing doors," he said. "We need to make sure those opportunities don't disappear."

Clutts said he felt burdensome government regulations shouldn't keep people away. He paraphrased one of his heroes, Ronald Reagan. "Reagan said if government is your answer than you're probably asking the wrong question," Clutts said.

Borough government should focus on its core responsibilities: school, roads and solid waste, he said.

"That's what the borough should focus on and not try to solve every problem that comes along," Clutts said.

Clutts elaborated on that idea in his closing remarks.

"My philosophy is to keep the government small," he said. "We need an efficient, well managed borough that focuses on those issues I said before."

Haggerty offered a subtle distinction as to what government should do.

"I believe the government should serve the people," he said. "We are the government and it's not the other way around."

In his closing remarks, Haggerty asked for the change to serve District 9 for three more years.

"I found being on the assembly both interesting and challenging," he said. "I'd like to thank everybody for the opportunity to be on it the last three years and the change to be on it another three years."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.